Four VR journalism stories

Eighteen students were divided into four groups and given the following design challenge: Create a journalistic narrative in the medium of virtual reality, using sound, 360-degree video, and animations. The end product should be a three- minute experience tested by members of a live audience. This design experiment resulted in four original VR stories. Since these stories are integral to our argument in this chapter, they are summarized below:

“Plastics” is a factual, documentary story told to children around 8—12 years old.The topic is the environmental crisis, with plastic waste in focus.The story is based on journalistic research into pollution, recirculation, and other environmental issues.There is an explicit narrator hovering above the 360 universe, with a calm, friendly, authoritative, adult voice. “Plastics” belongs to the genre of educational program or enlightenment.

“Cryonics” is a factual, documentary story told to young adults. Four different human avatars present their opinions about cryonically freezing your body when you die. The program offers no conclusions. The information is based on research with a priest, ethical philosopher, medical doctor, and cryonics enthusiast. “Cryonics” tentatively belongs to the genre of science journalism or infotainment.

“Drug Addict” is a socially realistic, dogmatic, rough aesthetics documentary. A series of quick scenes pulls us into the dramatic overdose of an average drug addict. The story is based on research and conversations with drug addicts and is filmed on location. The group had to handle ethical issues regarding identification and used actors to recreate the life of a drug addict. “Drug Addict” belongs to the genre of “social documentary” that has existed for decades on television and film.

“Schizophrenia” is an educational first-person simulation of the reality- shattering disorder of schizophrenia, giving the user an experience of visual and auditory hallucinations suffered by patients of this mental disorder. It is based on interviews with doctors and patients, and stages a three-part dramatization of the psychiatric disorder. “Schizophrenia” also belongs to the genre of “social documentary”, but the first-person perspective makes it particularly striking.

Theories that explain witnessing

Media phenomenology' considers that there is an intimate relation between human perception and media technology. Perceptual phenomenology describes the general features of individual bodily experience, and it argues that perception is an active search for information about the environment. Individuals apply their bodily skills and explorative strategies toward the object in question (Merleau-Ponty 1945). Merleau-Ponty stresses that your body has a temporal horizon - past, present, future - and a spatial horizon - near and far away. While being present you are at all times also in the middle of an experience.

During interactions with media our human perception becomes mediated or augmented by technical means. As Carr (1995) puts it: “taking virtual reality seriously means understanding the process by which technology can fool our perceptions” by “creating a synthetic environment” (3). He argues that virtual reality can be understood as “the stimulation of human perceptual experience to create an impression of something which is not really there” (5). The experience that is stimulated must be a very complex one if it is to fool perception.

Witnessing is an established reporting technique in radio and television. The speaker acquires authority because he is present at the scene of an important event, and the public gets a realistic description of it (Nyre 2008). When someone witnesses an event it is in a sense the event itself that speaks. It demands a realistic description of its properties, and the speaker is in what Erving Goffman (1981, 233) calls a “slave relation” to it.To witness something has two aspects: the passive one of seeing and the active one of saying. Witnessing in the rhetorical sense is therefore “the discursive act of stating one’s experience for the benefit of an audience that was not present at the event and yet must make some kind of judgment about it” (Peters 2001,709). The listener is in no position to challenge the truth claim of the story and is likely to trust it. Peters (2001, 710) says that witnessing presumes a discrepancy between the ignorance of one person and the knowledge of another.

On the basis of this explanation of witnessing, we can conceptualize a first- person witness that experiences the event by being placed in a synthetic, 360- degree audiovisual version of it. Instead of a journalistic reporter recounting what happened, the user experiences it first-hand. Nash (2018, 119) uses the concept of “immersive witness” in a way that fits with Peters’ description: “The notion of immersive witness underpins much of the exploration of virtual reality (VR) by journalists and humanitarian organisations. Immersive witness links the experience of VR with a moral attitude of responsibility for distant others”. Damiani and Southard (2017) argue that:

Presence in VR is the sensation of being in the space of a given experience, of sharing that space with characters, of being there. [...] Your audience will feel an increased sense of responsibility [...] Why am I here? and What should I do?

Damiani & Southard 2017

To make good witnessing, the producers need to create more than a realistic feeling of presence; there must also be a story with an address and a plotline. Chatman (1978) shows how a story is directed towards the users to persuade them to take up the desired subject position. First, the implied author is “reconstructed by the reader from the narrative” (148). In our case it is the institution of news journalism, and the requirements for trustworthiness, truthfulness, and relevance. Second, the implied reader is written into the narrative as a subject position that the reader can take up to varying degrees. Iser (1978) points out how “The text must therefore bring about a standpoint from which the reader will be able to view things that would never have come into focus as long as his own habitual dispositions were determining his orientation” (Iser 1978,35).

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